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Friday, May 24, 2013

Providing the world with electricity

How much would it cost to provide every person on Earth with electricity and clean-combusting cooking fuels by the year 2030? According to a multinational team of researchers led by Shonali Pachauri of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Austria, about 75 billion U.S. dollars per year.

Currently, over 20% of the world’s population do not have electricity. You can imagine how much less productive a society is if it must cease most types of work or learning at sunset. The lack of clean cooking fuels is an even bigger problem. The time and energy spent collecting traditional fuels (wood or coal) drains local economies. Even worse, the smoke from these stoves is known to cause illness and premature death, particularly in children. 

File:Chulla cookstove tamil nadu india.jpg
A traditional outdoor cookstove - a chulla - in rural Tamil Nadu fired, as you can see, by any readily available material, here branches pulled from the rapidly deforesting barren lands, some salvaged scrap wood, dried dung cakes and coconut shells. 
Credit: McKay Savage 8/30/2012

Because of these issues, the United Nations has set the ‘International Year of Sustainable Energy for All’ goal of achieving universal access to modern energy by the year 2030. Using 2005 as a base year, the researchers created models with different scenarios of public support in order to calculate what sorts of investment and policy changes would be required to get to that goal. For example, in some cases, the energy changes have to be achieved without changing existing polices, in others, western countries come together to offer low-cost financing and grants.

Not surprisingly, if the affluent parts of the world refuse to offer substantial assistance, the rest of world will not have electricity by 2030. In fact, without infrastructure assistance in the form of subsidized fuel prices, microloans and grants, there will be even more people without access to clean fuels in the future. On the other hand, an investment of about $75 billion per year could very well provide everyone on Earth with modern energy. Remember, that would be a global contribution, it wouldn't have to all come from one country.

Needless to say, this is an estimate. Even if the models are accurate, we can’t predict which if any policy changes are going to be implemented to push the U.N.’s agenda along. 

By the way, contrary to first impression, giving more people access to modern energy should not increase carbon emissions. This is because petroleum products give off less carbon than wood or other traditional cooking fuels. Also, modern stoves and lighting apparatuses are more efficient than traditional cookstoves. And if newly built energy grids focus much more heavily on renewable resources like wind or solar, the gains will be that much greater.

Pachauri, S., van Ruijven, B., Nagai, Y., Riahi, K., van Vuuren, D., Brew-Hammond, A., & Nakicenovic, N. (2013). Pathways to achieve universal household access to modern energy by 2030 Environmental Research Letters, 8 (2) DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/8/2/024015.